Armenian Architecture

Architecture occupies a unique place in Armenian culture. Since time immemorial, Armenians have been compulsive builders and chose to express their ingenuity, creativeness and aspirations predominantly trough stone and mortar. It is not a mere coincidence that countless of these monuments have survived to this day, some intact and some in ruin, to assert in their classic dignity the will of their builders to prevail over the ravages of man and nature.

Pre-Christian Period

Building activities began in the Armenian highlands in prehistoric times, long before the formation of the Armenian people.

Building techniques and architecture as such reached a high degree of developement during the period of the Urartian Kingdom (13th-sixth centuries B.C.). The Urartians built palaces and temples characterized by intrincate friezes and interesting construcction in the capital, Toushpan (Van), and other parts of the country. They founded the fortresscities of Arkishtikhinil and Erebouni on the plains of Ararat. Arkishtikhinli was later to becaome Armavir, one of the first capitals of the Armenian state, while Erebouni is new Yerevan, the present capital of Armenia.

After the fall of the Urartian Kingdom, the newly formed Armenian nation inherited and carried on the building art of the Urartians and other local tribes. During this period, the ancient cities (Ani, Kamakh, Van Armavir) were rebuilt and new cities, fortress and castles were constructed (Arshamashat, Arkatiokert, Yervandashat, Yervandakert, etc). From the second to first centuries B.C., during the period of an organized and powerful nation, the cities of Artashat (166 B.C.) and Tigranakert (77 B.C.) were built. Ancient historians attest to the size, grandeur and beauty of these cities, dotted with massive construction, temples, palaces and Hellenistic-type theaters.

During this period Armenia had become one of the greatest centers of Hellenistic culture in the Middle East particulary in the field of architecture.

More than two thousand years of calamities have completely obliterated the architectural monuments of pre-Christian Armenia. A few fortunate exeptions can be found at Garni , Armavir and Artasht, in Armenia.

The Christian Period (4th to 7th centuries A.D.)

The conditions for the developement of architecture were quite favorable during the Arshakouni Kingdom which came after the fall of the Artashesian Dynasty. King Khorsov Kotak (332-338 A.D.) founded the capital city of Dvin. The construction of churches gained tremendous impetus when in 301 A.D. St. Gregory the Illuminator and the Armenian King Tiridates (Trdat) proclaimed Christianity as the os the official religion state.

At the very outset of the formal adoption of Christianity as the official religion St. Gregory the Illuminator founded the first churches and houses of prayer at Ashtishat, Vagharshapat, Sevan and other parts of Armenia. These buildings were simple, single-nave and tri-nave basilicas, often built upon the foundations of former pagan temples. In some cases, pagan temples were converted to churches, relocating the apse from the west to the east side of the building.

Fifth century architectural developments resulted in the creation of central-domed cathedrals and domed basilicas. These were basic innovations in Armenian church architecture.

The principle of the dome came from prehistoric times and from centuries od architectural tradition in Armenia. "Corbelling" or erecting a wooden domed roof over a square building was widely practiced in Armenia in the construction of public and domestic buildings. This techique consists of laying short wooden beams accross the angles of the sqare formed by four collumns or four walls. The Armenian master builders translated this technique into the stone and succeded in building monumental domed structures in masonry.

One of the earliest examples of the domed cathedral is the Mother Cathedral of Echmiazin. About the year 480 A.D., prince Vahan Mamikonian rebuilt the basilican church formerly built by St. Gregory the Illuminator in 303 A.D. and incorporated the cruciform plan with a separate, quatrefoil dome-on-pendentive design. The cruciform plan is evident trough the four apses protruding from the walls of the basic quadrilateral plan. As to the dome, it is the central and unifying motif of the overall cruciform design in both plan and elevation.

The firther developement of the central-dome theme of Echmiadzin was realized in the Cathedral of Avan, built the last decade of the sixth century. In this design the cruciform structure is incorporated with a perfect square, whose open corners accomodate four vestries with centralized open anterooms. The broad-set dome rests upon the eight columns bodering the anterooms and vestries.

The structural design of the Cathedral of Avan reached a higher degree of perfection in the Cathedral of Hripsime (618 A.D.) and in a similar structures such as the MOnastery of the Holy translators, the churches of Garnhovit and Sisavan.

In contrast with Avan, the vestries of the Cathedral of Hripsime has an extraordinary harmonious composition. Its lean, stable and yet soaring structure is a fitting match to Ararat and Aragatz which grace its background. The Church of Hripsime is rightly considered a gem of seventh century classical Armenian architecture.

The dome on pendentives becam the unifying architectural characteristic of the sixth and sevbenth century Armenian churches. Subsequently, Armenian architects sought and found various solutions to the problems of enclosing a large space with new modes of constructing domes.

Architecture of the Ninth to 11th Centuries

The Arab conquests of the seventh century disrupted the economic and cultural life of Armenia and only in the latter part of the ninth century did new cultural developments arise during the time of the Bagratid Dynasty. The long attempts at independence on the part of the Armenians resulted finaly in the recognition of the Bagradit Dinasty by the Arab Caliphate and the Byzantine Empire.

The newly found political independence gave a new impetus to the age-old urge of the Armeians to build. This urge, nourished as it was by the surviving monumrnts of the seventh century, raised Armenian architecture to a new plateau of perfection.

Large works of construction were initiated toward the end of the ninth century, notably on the Island of Aghtamar in the lake Van. King Gagik commissioned Architect manuel to build a royal palace complete with an impressive church and a harbor.

In choosing the design of the church, Manuel sought inspiration in the forms embodied by the seventh century churches. For instance, he borrowed the basic layout of Hripsime, but in the elevational treatment, he cultivated the spacial configuration of cricuform churches.

The churches of the royal capitals Yerazgavors and Kars were built towards the end of the ninth century and the first half of the 10th century. These churches embody some older constructional motifs but announce nevertheless the stylistic trends of a new century, particulary with regards to proportions and external ornaments.

It was in the first half of the 10th century that the first churches of large monasterial communities were founded.


in 961, Ashot II Bagratuni moved his capital from Kars to Ani were built a palace and a walled city. The Catholicosate was also moved to the burgh of Arkina near Ani, were in 990, the architect Tiriades completed the building of the Cathological palace and Cathedral.

Tiriades was the greatest architect of his time. His fame spread outside of Armenia. in 989 it was he who restored the dome of the Cathedral of St. Sophia in Constantinople which was destroyed by an erthquake. His restoration stands to these days.

Tiriades designed and built the Cathedral of Ani (989-1000). In building the Cathedral of Ani, he used the old domed-basilical layout, but he widened the central nave, used clustered pillars of soaring proportions supporting concentric arches and pendentives, and impared to the inner space of the cathedral a sence of solemn gratness.

The exterior facades are decorated with an arcade of sculptured columns, decorative arches, crosses and narrow light slits.

European scholars have noted thet many structural features of the Ani Cathedral are innovations which later on have been borrowed and further developed by Roman and Gothic architects.

Among the monuments built in this period that represent a revival of seventh century architecture are the multi-apsed St. Gregory and the Church of the Holy Savoir. The Church of the Apostles belongs also to this category. According to Toramanian, the quatrefoil, solid masonry apse of this church was enclosed by five domes

cultural and artistic developements of this period came to an end towards the middle of the 11th century as a result of foreign invasions.

To sum up the architectural hystory of the period from the ninth trough the 11th centuries, new means of artistic expressions were created without departing drastically from the classic forms of the seventh century. The interior and exterior design of the churches assumed soaring proportions; the exterior walls were cultivated with decoratives arcades, niches and narrow light slits surrounded by delicate ornaments. The octagonal drums supporting the dome of the seventh century churches evolved into poligonal or cylindrical forms, and were decorated by intrincate carvings and crowned with pleated domes.

The Architecture of the 12th to 14th Centuries

In 1041 the Byzantine Empire occupied Ani, and 23 years later the invasion of the Seljuks brought an end to building activiteis in Armenia. Towards the end of the 12th century and the beginning of the 13th century, two Armenian generals, Zakare and Ivan Zakarian, led Armenian and Georgian troops in liberating Northern Armenia including Shirak and Airarat. Under the new conditions, the economy prospered, and business activities, both domestic and foreign, stimulated the construction of roads, bridges, caravansaries, hostelries, palaces and various other religious and secular buildings.

Once again Ani regained its lost prominence. In Addition to a multitude of secular structures, new churches were built such as those of Tigranes Honents (1215), Baghtaek and Desert of Virgins (13th century).

The monastic buildings that were started towards the end of the 10th century were furtherdeveloped suring the 12th and 13th centuries and these buildings finally evolved into integrated buildings in clusters of architectureal monuments. Examples are numerous and include tatev, Sanahin, Haghbat, Khedzkonk, Ketcharis, Geghard, Haghardzin, Gotchavank, Noravank. It was in these monasteries that the cultural and educational foundations of Armeniawere centered. The schools and universities of medieval Armenia were functioning in Tatev, Sanahin and Gladzor.

The problems of site selection, whetherfor one or for a cluster of buildings, and the functional and aesthetic integration of the buildings with their natural surroundings, were solved with great maestry by the Armenian architects. Whether the monument were located in the open plain or on the side of a mountain, in the forest or atop of a rocky cliff, their grand and noble design completed their natural backdrop and appeared to be part of the nature.

In the monastic complexes, the principal structure was the church, which stood out by its sheer size and dominated its surroundings. Attached to the western side of the church was the porch and various other buildings whose arrangement was ussualy dedicated to the local custom. The buildings included the refectory, library, belfry, cloisters, auxiliary units and memorials. The entire complex was enclosed by a rampart and was as impregnable as a fortress.

Church porches are structures characteristic to Armenian architecture. They first appeared on the 10th century. Their significance is partly religiuos and partly secular. Practically they are realted in concept as well as in style to Armenian domestic dwellings, but in actually they are monumental masonry structures. Foremost examples are horomos, Geghart, Haghpat, Makaravank, Saghmosavank, Arades.

The architectural problem of the refractory has been solved in much the same manner as that of the porches. However, in view of functional considerations, greater liberties have been taken. For instance in the Monastery of Haghardzin, the refectory is a rectangular hall in which two centrally-placed pillars support intersecting arches that spring from the walls.

The libraries in general have a square layout (e.g. Sanahin, Haghbat, Goshavank). The hall, unobstructed with columns, is enclosed by pendentives that rest on intersecting arches.

The belfries of monastic complexes are individual structures, crowned with domed colonades (e.g. Sanahin, Hagbat), or have been incorporated as part of porches or libraries (e.g. Hovanavank, Goshavank) In the 17-19th centuries these belfries were constructed primarly at the west facade of churches and cathedrals (e.g. Echmiadzin, Hripsime, Tatev).

The rock-hewn churches of Geghart and Ayrivank and the royal mausoleums occupy a unique place in the Armenian architecture of the second half of the 13th century. Architecturally, these underground structures repeat the layout and form of their counterparts built above the ground. Also famous as rock-hewn church-mausoleums are Yeghvart (1321-1328) and the two-storied Noravank of Amaghu.

Minor forms of architecture, such as the construction of khatchkar monuments reached a high degree of development during the 12th to 14th centuries. Each one of these monuments, which can be numbered in the thousands, is a peerless creation in stone carving and design. Armenians can be credited with being the originators and main practitioners of this particular form of art in the world of history of art.

The Architecture of the 15th to 18th Centuries

After the fall of the Bagratounis, Armenians first created the Roubinian rule and then the kingdom of Cilicia towards the end of the 12th century. For about 300 years of its existence, this kingdom became a new center of cultural and architectural development.

In 1375, the kingdom of Cilicia was destroyed, while in Armenia proper, succesive invasions nd ocupations by Mongols, Ottomans and Persians devastated the country, and denied it of any opportunity of constructional and cultural activities.

It was only towards the end of the 17th century that ecoonomic and political conditions in Armenia made the construction of some churches possible in the provinces of Airarat and Siunik. Thus came to an end the millenia; course of historic Armenian Architecture.

Baghtassar Arzoumanian, 1970.